I'm not writing this with the expectation of praise or winning people over - I'm reporting out on this experience and what I got from it so take it as you will.
I attended the scoping session NOAA held in Portland last week. It was supposed to be the night of the candidate forum that the League of Women Voters was to hold between Mr. Faulkingham and myself. When the scoping session was scheduled, he asked to reschedule the forum which the League and I were perfectly fine with. As he rightly pointed out, it was important for him to be there, for himself, and to represent the lobster industry. With that night freed up, I too decided to attend. While I have no direct ties to the lobster industry (besides enjoying eating its product), a number of my friends and acquaintances are, and it is and absolutely critical part of our local communities. I owed it to them to be there if I wanted a chance to represent this district in Augusta. Just outside the hall, there were sheets to sign up to speak. I didn’t sign up. There were many more people with much more right to voice their opinions than I had. I went upstairs to sit in the balcony and listen in.
The session opened with an explanation from NOAA about why we were all there: to figure out how to get to a 90-94% reduction in risk to North Atlantic Right Whales. Science suggests that the right whale population cannot survive more than 0.7 deaths per year and since 2017, the numbers have not been good. The population has been on the decline in that period with only 55 known births. They explained the model they use, and how they get to the 90% to 94% reduction numbers.
Then the politicians started talking. First Governor Mills, who was probably seconds from being booed off of the stage before her fighting words changed that tide. She said how she helped convince NOAA to come to Portland for this meeting because the regulations need changing. Senator Collins said how NOAA should be focusing on ship strikes and cooperation with Canada. Representative Pingree talked economics and how a $725 million catch translated into a $1.4 billion contribution to the economy – all of which could be destroyed by the current wave of restrictions. Representative Golden attributed the lawsuits attacking the industry to philanthropic and conservation groups with deep pockets and expressed eagerness to reform the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts.
Then came the public comment, over an hour into the scoping session. Former Governor Paul LePage got in first, noting that offshore wind has a take rate of 5.4 whales per year and echoed Golden’s concerns about where the money was coming from. Fortunately, individuals from the fishing community finally got the speak a few minutes later. And there were some good suggestions for both NOAA and fishermen:
- exemptions for those fishing in shallow waters or with low trap numbers
- trap limits wouldn’t be the worst thing, but seasonal shutdowns in any zone will lead to alcohol, drug, and physical abuse with many idle fishermen
- get unbiased scientists to peer review the data and model being used
- accept data from the people in the field
- adjust trap numbers so that poundage per tag remains optimal and therefore get a better count of the number of traps actually in use
Many testimonials were given, bringing up different points about the lobster industry in general:
- what happens to the lobster industry affects all of Maine, not just the coast
- NOAA & NMFS have failed the lobster industry and Maine
- zero and zero – right whales proven to have been entangled in Maine lobster gear since 2004, and right whale deaths ever attributed to Maine lobster gear
- these regulations will end the Maine way of life
- in 2016, the industry resulted in $1 billion in movement of goods, improving to about $2 billion in 2021, in a state GDP of $68 billion – Bangor is only strong if the surrounding communities are too
- with over 1100 lobster licenses in Washington county, that means about 1700 jobs overall would be lost in an area with already high unemployment
And criticism of conservation measures past and present:
- conservation measures can’t work if whales aren’t in the waters where they apply
- there is resistance to tagging and tracking right whales because theoretical whales are more useful to the current model
- the restrictions are targeting a population that is part of the solution, not the problem
- in 2019 a NOAA research vessel struck a right whale – why aren’t similar requirements being proposed for shipping, cruise ships, and offshore wind developments?
- ropeless fishing technology is unproven and so far, not demonstrably workable here
- humpback whales don’t have a problem with lobster gear
- offshore wind leases allow a take of 20 right whales each – there are 35 such leases along the coast, enough to eliminate the entire right whale population legally, twice
The session ran long and more than once, shade was thrown at the organizers for allowing politicians to “campaign” at the outset, eating up time for actual public comment. It was supposed to have a hard stop at 9 PM with time for questions to be asked of the NOAA people present, with the building locking up at 10. Instead, speakers kept coming right up until closing time with Bruce Poliquin jumping in a couple of times, shouting for people to be allowed to speak. Of course, by that time, many people had already left. Why wouldn’t they? Many drove three or more hours to get to Portland – not a central location for such a meeting in the first place – and many of those had to get up and work at 3 AM.
There was a general sense of anger throughout the evening, though some held it back more than others. I was surprised with the general level of restraint shown by most people. As the night wrapped up, I headed for a motel in Saco rather than drive back from Portland starting at quarter past 10 – I’m not as young as I used to be.
In the hours and days following the scoping session, I kept coming back to a thought that perhaps I had long been exposed to, but had never really considered:
The fishermen love what they do.
It seems a gross oversimplification, but aside from the science, and the models, and the resentment, that was the true, overarching sentiment that was most impactful for me from that scoping session. How many of us live with jobs that we are unsatisfied with and are unfulfilling, or move from one job to another, hoping in some way it will get better?
Certainly, there are bad days – but that’s what momma always warned us about. There are challenges and frustrations in any line of work. But at the end of the day, covered in the smell and grime of bait, gear, sweat, and I’m sure at times even worse, this is the livelihood that this group of people love. As one woman captain said, it wasn’t what she did, it was who she was.
It is a reasonably solitary job, though of course, there may be one or more sternpeople working alongside the proprietor. It is self-directed, independent for those in charge. A constant challenge to stay afloat (hopefully only figuratively) though often times it can be very lucrative, and many will reap the rewards of that success. Others do only enough to reasonably get by. It is taxing work, taking a toll on the body, and increasingly on the mind.
And they love it. They take the hardship because it’s part of the equation. The reward is not just the compensation, it is the work itself. That says a lot, both for the job and the industry. And in a world where an entire generation seems to want to get rich by being social media influencers, an industry like this is a testament to the value of hard work, responsible operation and stewardship of a resource, and the interconnectedness of our world.
Is there more to Maine (and House District 12) than lobster? Absolutely. But lobster is nevertheless a crucial component of it, one that needs champions and protection in the face of well-meaning yet flawed regulations. If Mr. Faulkingham is reelected in November, certainly the lobster industry will have him as a tireless supporter. If instead I am elected, I want to have a team of individuals from the lobster industry in our communities to help me be as effective as possible in that role. I hope Mr. Faulkingham would consider being a part of it.